Thursday, July 11, 2013

Photographing (and Eating) Tapas in León, Spain

Sometimes a photographer must write about something other than photography.  In this case, I'm writing about something that impressed me enough to both write about and photograph it:  tapas.  I'm certainly not a food critic.  However, my mission with  this blog entry is to give you a feel for a cultural experience you won't find in the United States.  Yes, you'll find tapas restaurants here, where you can get little orders of croquettes and quail legs and Spanish ham, but you won't find the real Spanish experience anywhere other than Spain.  If you're heading to Spain, go to the north.  León is a wonderful city on the Camino de Santiago.  While it has its share of tourists, it doesn't feel like a tourist town.  You'll find that the tapas bars aren't filled with tourists.  They're filled with the people of León. That speaks volumes for the food and drinks you'll find and the experience you'll have in this city.

León is one of the great cities of Spain.  Not only does it have friendly people, a magnificent Gothic cathedral, Roman ruins, and surviving streets from the medieval period, it is also a center of the ancient culinary tradition known as tapas.  Tapas are snacks served when a drink is ordered.  That's the simple definition.  However, in the case of tapas, photographs may give a better understanding of the tradition and why it's not to be missed if you're in León or northern Spain.

The Cathedral in León is noted as one of the most beautiful in Europe.  In the surrounding streets are hundreds of bars and restaurants.

The main street in León has been used since Roman times.  Tapas can be found at the end of the rainbow, or almost anywhere else in the city.

Tapas can't be defined as a specific type of food.  It might be slices of one or more of the delicious Spanish hams, along with some bread and local cheese.  It might be deep fried croquetas or calamari, soup, shrimp, a potato or rice dish, or even pizza.

A typical plate of tapas that came with the order of two glasses of Rioja (one of the regions for fine wine in Spain) at the Boccalino Bar. This plate had shrimp, sausage, cheese, and bread.

My wife and I had a second glass of wine only because we heard that pizza would be on the next plate of tapas.  It was as good as it looks.

The Boccalino Bar is in the Plaza de San Isidoro, just across from the San Isidoro church, where my parents-in-law were married more than fifty years ago.  On Saturday nights during the summer, a laser light show, Reino de León, is projected onto the walls of the church.  The show depicts the city from early times to the modern day and is well worth seeing.

Some bars are famous for specific types of tapas.  Others have a little bit of everything.  The way it's done in León is that you simply order a drink (wine, beer, bottle of water, soft drink, etc.) and the waiter will bring out a portion, usually generous, of food.  Sometimes you can choose the snacks you want.  Sometimes the waiter will just bring you a plate of something good to eat.  You might imagine that such a service would drive the price of drinks up to an unaffordable level.  Yet, a round of wine, beer and soft drinks for seven or eight people was usually about 10 Euros (about US $13).

The Camarote Madrid is crowded on weekend nights.  Notice the Spanish hams hanging over the bar.

Manolo is on the the bartenders at the Camarote Madrid.  He stays busy making sure customers have wine, beer and tapas.
There are hundred of bars in León, especially in the famed Barrio Húmedo, the "wet area."  I only made it to a dozen or so, usually going out with family and friends, starting around 9 o'clock and ending the excursion in the early morning hours.  During that time, we would go to three or four bars, and with three or four drinks, have a satisfying dinner made up of various tapas.

Homemade potato chips and Salmorejo, a cold soup similar to gazpacho, are on the tapas menu at the Camarote Madrid.

It's also interesting to note that the bars are full of all sorts:  retired people, professionals, students,  and families.  On the weekends, it's not unusual to see small children in the bars past midnight.  The bars are considered family places and food can often be ordered at reasonable prices if the tapas aren't enough to satisfy. During all my visits to bars, I never saw anyone who remotely appeared drunk or disorderly.  However, everyone had a good time.

On weekend nights the bars are especially crowded, and the clientele may spill out onto the streets.

Sausage, ham, cheese and bread are typical tapas of the bar Jamón Jamón .  As you can imagine, it's a popular place with students.

My children's cousin, Jorge enjoys tapas at Jamón Jamón.

This video should give you a feel for the fast-paced atmosphere in places like Jamón Jamón.  I shot it with the same Nikon D90 I used for the other photos in this blog entry.

I still have enough photos and information for another entry on tapas.  Part II will be coming soon.

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  1. Everything we had was delicious, but we always had to wait until Tom had taken his pictures in order to try the tapas! It was well worth it though, both for the food and for the pictures. Well done, Tom!

  2. Tom! That´s a wonderful presentation. Thank you for loving our city as much as we do.

    Lots of love,


  3. OK.....I'm ready to visit Spain! Thank you for sharing your experience! Angela

  4. Wow! Beautiful pictures and delicious looking food. Made me hungry :). I can't wait to go to northern Spain. Thanks so much for sharing this!
    --Valery Behan